Tallis Scholars & Klangforum Wien, University Church (Salzburg)

Furrer, Victoria

I came to Salzburg’s University Church this evening for the sonorous Mass for the Dead, the Renaissance masterpiece of Tomás Luis de Victoria.  I stayed for some works by contemporary Swiss composer Beat Furrer.  I should not have stayed for the Furrer, as I now have a headache.

The Tallis Scholars, founded 45 years ago, came to the Festival under their founder Peter Phillips to perform Victoria’s last work. Victoria lived eight years after he wrote his Mass for the Dead, but wrote nothing else – he left everything he had left in this polyphonic delight, originally written for the funeral of the Queen Mother of Spain, Victoria’s longtime patron and employer (he was not only her court composer, but also her priest).  The choir, with only twelve singers, filled the church with warmth, their voices soaring high into the dome and back down, for a complete but crystal clear sound.  What joy in sorrow.

Victoria’s mass was framed by two Furrer works, which I don’t know if I’d dignify with the description of “music” (maybe the second one qualified).  The concert opened with Invocation VI, a setting of a poem by Victoria’s Spanish contemporary Juan de la Cruz, scored for soprano (Katrien Baerts) and bass flute (Eva Furrer).  The problem was that neither of them used their instruments properly.  Both came out with microphones strapped to their heads, which already signaled something was wrong (being unable to project in a small church is not a good sign).  The microphones became clear when they began to perform: the soprano whispered and hissed (and never enunciated the words), while the flutist seemingly inhaled loudly through, rather than blowing into, her flute.  Sometimes it became hard to tell which of them was making the noise.  What the hell was that?

I assumed that the work after the Victoria mass could not be as bad, and it seemed impolite to walk out, so I stayed.  I was right: Intorno al Bianco was not as bad as Invocation VI.  The Klangforum Wien performed (or some of its members: the scoring was for string quartet, clarinet, and two “sound designers” who provided special effects over the speaker system).  It opened with a certain charm, reminding me of recordings of songs of the humpback whales.  But after about 10 minutes, these got a little tiring.  Suddenly the music sped up and changed its message, but then stayed the new course for another five minutes.  When would it get to the point?  Well, the final 15 minutes the instruments started making new sound effects, initially together and then against each other.  These were generally curious, but sometimes devolved into high-pitched shrieking, bouncing off the dome and back to mock the lush tones Victoria had produced, and making my head throb.  Finally it ended.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Beethoven

I had a rare chance to hear my hometown orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in concert tonight in its home in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.  As a Philadelphian myself, I feel entitled to switch back into my hometown persona – Philadelphians expect top performances from their institutions and make sure to come out deeply critical of anything less.  For much of its existence, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made the city proud, and so the city can reasonably expect it to remain among the best in the world.  Whether it does or not depends on many factors, and we Philadelphians will certainly call them out.

Driven by its incompetent management into bankruptcy, at least the Orchestra still sounds excellent musically.  Of course, its incompetent management is also responsible for the lack of a decent music director for many years now.  The last time I heard the Philadelphians perform, the Orchestra’s previous Music Director Christoph Eschenbach dully kept time on the podium.  Tonight, the current Chief Conductor, the even-more-uninspiring Charles Dutoit (who obviously uses the same tailor for his hairpiece as he does for his tailcoat), waved the baton.  The Orchestra did not need him.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’Symphony of Psalms.  This is an odd piece, which might be understandable in the hands of a decent conductor but remained beyond my comprehension tonight.  Stravinsky alternated between ugly and mystical music, to set psalms which praised God – psalms whose very nature should take neither ugly nor mystical music.  The unorthodox instrumentation (no violins nor viole) added to the strangeness.  I’ll have to listen again some time, but not with Dutoit on the podium.

After the intermission came a dull reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Neither strenuous nor fluid in his approach, Dutoit managed to give the piece absolutely no lilt.  His listless stick-waving resulted in missed cues and confused dynamics across the orchestra.  Dutoit also managed to make the third movement Adagio – one of my favorite movements from the entire symphonic repertory, and a notoriously difficult test of a conductor’s skill – both too fast and too long.  In his rush, he lost the harmonies and shattered the lines, and the fourth movement could not come soon enough.  “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” sang the bass solo in the fourth movement: “O Friends, not these tones” – indeed not those other tones either, unfortunately.

In isolation, the Orchestra played well under the circumstances.  The Philadelphia Singers Chorale enunciated emotionlessly.  The ensemble of soloists – Melanie DienerMary Phillips, Joseph Kaiser, and Nathan Berg – fulfilled its purpose.  Berg’s voice sounded dry, however – and indeed all four soloists were gulping from water bottles.

The acoustics in the Kimmel Center remain overrated.  The orchestra sounded like it was performing behind a screen, its tone somehow dulled.  For a contemporary hall, the Kimmel Center looks reasonable enough, with darker wood than what has become common elsewhere, but I have never bought the claims that its high-tech design produced anything remotely reaching the spectacular acoustics its fans claim.  This is simply a dull hall.

And Dutoit has to go (a new Music Director – young and little-tested but enthusiastic and well-regarded by the Orchestra – has been named beginning in Fall 2012, which cannot come soon enough).  So, too, the need to chuck from the Kimmel Center roof the entire inept management of what should be one of the greatest orchestras on the planet rather than a wreck plunged into bankruptcy.  It is not too late to save the Philadelphia Orchestra, but someone needs to do it before all of its fine musicians go elsewhere.

The audience leapt to its feet at the concert’s end, roaring approvingly in a massive standing ovation.  If this mediocre performance merited a standing ovation from a packed Philadelphia house (implying that this concert represented a much finer performance than what concert-goers have come to expect of it), then perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra has already sunk into the depths.  What a tragedy.